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Archive for the ‘Sense of place’ Category

I’m working my way through the complete fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. For those of you not familiar with his work, he was a writer of horror stories in the early decades of the twentieth century. Here’s a sample of his work, from “The Statement of Randolph Carter”:

In the lone silence of that hoary and deserted city of the dead, my mind conceived the most ghastly phantasies and illusions; and the grotesque shrines and monoliths seemed to assume a hideous personality—a half-sentience. Amorphous shadows seemed to lurk in the darker recesses of the weed-choked hollow and to flit as in some blasphemous ceremonial procession past the portals of the mouldering tombs in the hillside; shadows which could not have been cast by that pallid, peering crescent moon. I constantly consulted my watch by the light of my electric lantern, and listened with feverish anxiety at the receiver of the telephone; but for more than a quarter of an hour heard nothing. Then a faint clicking came from the instrument, and I called down to my friend in a tense voice. Apprehensive as I was, I was nevertheless unprepared for the words which came up from that uncanny vault in accents more alarmed and quivering than any I had heard before from Harley Warren. He who had so calmly left me a little while previously, now called from below in a shaky whisper more portentous than the loudest shriek:
“God! If you could see what I am seeing!”

As you can see, he wrote in the florid style common to writers of English until Hammett and Hemingway taught us to be sparing in our words–and let me not forget Strunk and White.

But what’s wrong with this? Lovecraft creates an atmosphere in his writing, doesn’t he? It is clear that the characters are horrified. The trouble is that I as the reader don’t know why.

What, for example, is meant by words like ghastly, blasphemous, ceremonial, or grotesque? I realize that the person saying those words has a strong dislike for what he is seeing. But since I can’t see them myself, I’m in the dark. It’s as though the narrator is telling me that I must accept his opinion on the scene without question.

Now I’m not one to demand a lot of descriptive writing in a story. I myself go for Hammett’s style–I told you there’s a chair and a bed in the room. What else do you need to know? But if the author is going to inform me that there be a sight worth seeing heere, I want it shown to me. Don’t just tell me what the author or a character thinks about it. Don’t use vague words that presume that I’ll agree with their opinions. If you want to tell me that there’s a hideous mushroom in the midst of the unquiet cellar, do it this way:

On the damp dirt floor, a lumpy white and red-spotted fungus stood. Was it fond of the odor of decay in the cellar? I wouldn’t know, having never held communication with a mushroom. The smell and the whistling of a faint breeze through the broken pane of glass at the far end certainly made me uneasy.

What I did there was show you the important object, gave you a sense of the cellar around said object, and let you know how the character feels about it. But I also allowed you to decide if you agree with the character.

To quote from Lovecraft’s story again, “God, if you could see what I am seeing!” Indeed. That’s exactly the point. If what the character is seeing is all that important, I need to see it to, not just be told how the author wants me to react.

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